In searching the indexes of old land deeds, tax assessments, and censuses, it soon becomes apparent that many names from the early days of this neighborhood come down to us with alternative spellings, such as Pauley, Pawley, Pauling, and Rhoads, Rhoades, Rhodes. This is especially the case with German immigrants: Golder, Colter, Culter, Coulter; Heider, Hyder, Huyter; Scheele, Scheely, Sheele, Shela, Sheely.
Some German names were anglicized phonetically; the builder of the oldest extant house in the District of Columbia (3051 M Street, 1765) has entered history as Christopher Layman, but it is more likely that his name was Lehmann when he landed in Philadelphia in 1727. Some names could be readily anglicized by translation, as when Weber became Weaver, or Müller became Miller. And sometimes a combination of strategies was at work, as in the case of the Americanized surname Homiller, whose possible original spellings include Hohmüller, Hochmüller, Haumüller, and Heumüller.
Anyone searching American censuses and other records for members of the Kengla family of Georgetown will discover a staggering variety of experimental spellings, including Kunglaw, Canley, Kenley, Kinley, Kenla, Kengly, Kengley, Kingley, and Kingla. (While the name of the immigrant that the family remembers is Künler, the persistence, and ultimate survival, of the letter g suggests that Küngler is also a possibility.)
For some immigrants, pronunciation mattered more than orthography; what was being sought was a spelling that was phonetically right. Christopher Gebauer, for example, seems to have come from a part of Germany where the initial g was pronounced y, so his children wrote their name Yeabower.
In the 1850 census a German-born farmer listed as Conrad Schorge appears in the northwest ward of Georgetown; an 1852 deed recites this man’s surprising number of aliases: Schoerge, Schorga, Schorger, Screoiger, and Sherrige. The 1860 census listed the immigrant as Schorya, suggesting––as had been the case with Gebauer––that g was to be pronounced as y.
From the definitive version of the surname that would eventually emerge, it is also clear that the first vowel of Schorya was not right––it must have had an umlaut. The name Cherry marked the immigrant’s property on the Boschke map (1859); and it was Sherry in his last will and testament (1866).
As easy as these last two spellings were on the ear and eye of English-speakers, they were still phonetically unsatisfactory. Conrad Schörge had arrived in America around 1832, and it took forty years of collaboration with native-born clerks to arrive at an American spelling of his surname; the (inspired) result made its first appearance in 1874: Sherier.
As far as the family was concerned, this was the keeper, but officialdom produced one more variation: until 1977, the street sign in Palisades that commemorated the family farm read Sherrier. Only a long campaign by a descendant, defending the economical spelling arrived at a century earlier, persuaded the city to drop one r.
While an immigrant’s nationality was less likely to present spelling difficulties than his surname, Jacob Clair, a laborer living on the crest of Pole Hill, just north of Georgetown, appears to have had trouble making it clear that he was from Bavaria. As a result, the nationality entered in the census––“Byrish”––was the census taker’s rendering of Clair’s response: “Bayrisch”. (1860 census, District of Columbia, Washington County, 1st division, Tenleytown P.O., roll 103, p.16.)
Layman/Lehmann: Gary C. Grassl, Genforum, April 13, 2000
Schoerge, Schorga, Schorger, Screoiger, Sherrige: DC Liber JAS38 (1852) f.384/320
Sherier: Atlas of Washington and 15 Miles Surrounding, 1874
Sherrier: Washington Post Magazine, February 5, 1978
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